6 Years after the Internet's own boy: has the mission of Aaron Swartz failed?

 Originally published on January 11, 2019 by Patrick Gebhardt
Last updated on March 03, 2022 • 10 minute read

Aaron Swartz was found dead on January 11, 2013. He was 26 years old. During these 26 years, he made a name for himself as programmer, author, co-founder of Reddit, hacktivist and initiator of numerous campaigns to promote civic awareness and protest censorship on the Internet. Today, 6 years later, Aaron is an Internet legend (known to the general public through the film The Internet's Own Boy), while general censorship on the Internet continues to progress.

China: the old school oppressor

The more China turns into a political global player, the more Chinese views of freedom of expression on the Internet seem to make a career in other regions of the world. The fact that China is constantly tightening its censorship of the Internet is nothing new. And yet, over the last three years, a number of things have gotten worse.

In the past, VPNs made it possible for citizens of the People's Republic to access foreign websites without state supervision and thus participate in Internet life, at least indirectly. But this is exactly what will probably stop now. The relevant ministry in Beijing has announced that only those VPN tunnels that have been licensed and approved by one of the state providers will be permitted. VPN will continue to exist, but with enormous computing power and software it should be possible to check every single connection and, if in doubt, cut off a VPN connection immediately. The basis is a cyber security law that came into force many months ago. Since then, telecommunications companies, transport companies, energy suppliers or financial groups may only buy IT solutions that have passed a state security audit (and thus serve the state raison d'être).

In addition, companies in China are obliged to make their data available to the security authorities on request. Companies that store data outside China without permission may lose their business license. Apple, for example, must therefore operate servers in the People's Republic. Last summer, Apple already deleted more than 600 VPN providers from its Chinese App Store - under pressure from the Chinese leadership.

All new on the western front

The European Union (which otherwise loves freedom so much) seems to at least partly make use of Chinese views of freedom on the Internet under the already scary-sounding title CPC Regulation. This new EU regulation on consumer protection will in future authorize public authorities to block access to websites in order to prevent the risk of serious damage to the collective interests of consumers. What is meant by the concept of a collective interest of consumers has been largely left open in the usual ambiguous legal language. As a result, authorities in individual EU states, such as the Federal Financial Supervisory Authority in Germany and the Federal Aviation Authority, could block websites. Although in Germany the Federal Ministry of Justice emphasized that Internet blocking should only be imposed as the severest sanction (practically as an ultima ratio if other measures would have no or insufficient effect), the vague wording of the authorization is a thorn in the side of many Internet activists.

The blocking of Internet sites because of right-wing extremist or violence-glorifying content has long been a controversial issue in Germany. But it seems that this very fear is being exploited to systematically gain more and more power over the free flow of opinion on the Internet. Further legislative amendments or additions from Brussels adopted in 2018 fit into this picture. The widely disputed articles of a new Copyright Directive, which has de facto obliged online platforms to use so-called upload filters, is an example. Just before the vote on June 20, 2018, the UN rapporteur David Kaye had warned of the plans of MEPs. He argued that the upload filters could also affect satire and critical debates.

Freedom on the Internet: there's no open debate

The above-mentioned developments in China and Europe — that is the renunciation of the possibility of comprehensive free opinion formation on the Internet and the suppression of information published or viewed — has been existent in the USA for many years and independent of a specific administration. The fact that authoritarian states regard freedom on the Internet as a danger is logical and not surprising. But the fact that democratic, liberty-loving regions of the world are also promoting censorship on the Internet is pessimistic, also with regard to the work of people like Aaron. It seems that in many democratic countries there is a perception that the Internet is somehow a "different, lawless space" in which citizens' fundamental rights do not need to be respected. Perhaps it will take a few more years for politicians to become aware of this, but then again, it's already 2019...

On the other hand, however, it is understandable that the other extreme, namely unrestricted freedom on the Internet that is not regulated in any form, could lead to an oligarchy, the rule of the few, for example of Alphabet, Facebook or various think tanks. The possibility that it will not be states or citizens, but individual companies to form and disseminate opinions in the future, is associated with more danger than websites with illegal or dangerous content (which are repeatedly brought into the field by politicians). The Internet has great self-cleaning powers, but can only regulate itself to a limited extent if two or three large corporations provide and control the essential platforms. 

Both a state restriction and a state laissez-faire attitude can be equally dangerous. Both can lead to de facto censorship. However, there is no general discourse on the pros and cons of measures that have a regulating or censoring effect. Decisions are taken without broad public debate. There is no tendency to suggest that the opinion of the general public, of Internet users, young or old, poor or rich, from whatever political camp, will play a role in the decisions of the political leadership.

Aaron dedicated his life to the free Internet and an open, pluralistic, networked society. He was instrumental in overturning the Stop Online Piracy Act, creating unprecedented global attention for Internet regulation. Under pressure from what many juridical experts have called a legal farce, he took his own life. His girlfriend found him dead in his Brooklyn apartment.

In January 2019, it appears as if the mission of Aaron Swartz has failed. 

We’ve lost a fighter. We’ve lost somebody who put huge energy into righting wrongs. There are people around the world who take it on themselves to just try to fix the world but very few of them do it 24/7 like Aaron. Very few of them are as dedicated. So of the people who are fighting for right, and what he was doing up to the end was fighting for right, we have lost one of our own.

Tim Berners-Lee in "Remember Aaron Swartz"